26 November 2006

Reconciliation & Resistance

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It is difficult to overstate the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so any project that attempts to drill its way into the middle of it and pull apart some of the strands for closer public examination deserves support. One recent effort is the documentary Encounter Point, produced by the non-partisan, peace-focused organization Just Vision. It is a smart, tightly woven piece of film-making that focuses on the stories of eight Israelis and Palestinians, as they attempt to engage with – and change – the very split societies around them.

At the center of the movie is the Bereaved Families Forum, a mixed group of Palestinians and Israelis born of loss, and a desire to use individual tragedies to build bridges to the “other” side – not just to achieve some kind of emotional healing, but to attempt to prevent such tragedies in the future. Death is inevitable, but early death through warfare is not, and few know that better than the relatives of those people killed in a conflict as long-standing and – let it be said – senseless as this one. From this group, we are introduced to several people, and the film follows them through different moments in their lives when they must confront the conflict around them, as well as the solidity of their own beliefs. (Click here for in-depth information about some of the people featured in the film, thanks to its excellent web site.) As the film’s web site says, “Audiences are left with a sense that the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians is at once bridgeable and tremendously wide.” That is certainly true.

But there is another, less convenient truth (to borrow from a different recent documentary) at the center of Encounter Point. There are two words, two concepts, that pop up over and over throughout the film: reconciliation and resistance. The embodiment of reconciliation seems to be Robi Damelin, a Jewish Israeli of South African origin whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while he was fighting in the army; the sniper becomes a hero in the Palestinian communities of the West Bank as a result of his successful murder of an Israeli soldier. We follow Robi as she comes to terms with her loss, and explains again and again – to different audiences, including those of us watching the documentary – why the death of her son does not, as some would have it, automatically lead to hatred of all Palestinians.

Ali Abu Awwad, a young man Hebron who has been shot, jailed, and lost family members to the conflict, is the embodiment of Palestinian resistance. For Ali, the Bereaved Families Forum is an opportunity for reconciliation, to understand the senseless loss on all sides of this conflict, but it also serves as fuel for what he believes is crucially important for Palestinians: non-violent resistance. Where Robi (and others of the Jewish Israelis in the film) seem to talk about reconciliation in terms of a more immediate, active peace-making, Ali very articulately deconstructs the notion of reconciliation and instead frames his devotion to the cause in terms of a wholly different approach to what remains a very active conflict. Two of the best scenes in the film feature Ali tackling this issue. In one, he has gone to visit a cousin at a rehabilitation center in Bethlehem; the cousin, a teenager, was shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers. Ali then winds up in the center’s cafeteria discussing the importance of talking with Israelis – and of non-violent resistance – to a number of other wounded Palestinians. It isn’t initially clear how much progress he makes; both ideas seem completely off the wall to young men whose lives have been defined, emotionally and physically, violence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In another scene, Ali meets Shlomo, a Jewish Israeli who has spent much of his life in a West Bank settlement and for whom this appears to be his first conversation with a real, live Palestinian; it is eye-opening for the mutual honesty both of them bring to their discussion.

Left somewhat unresolved in all this is the underlying tension between people from two very different communities who must, ultimately, face a reality that may be unpleasant: any resolution to this conflict will require compromise, an idea which is not really discussed in the film. Still, non-violence and compromise may be the two most important things that Encounter Point has to teach us. Ali makes reference to the role that non-violence should have in Palestinian resistance, and he talks about the success of the Indian movement for independence, in which Mahatma Gandhi’s persistent emphasis on non-violence ultimately forced the hands of the British. As I have written before (and here, too), this is an idea sorely lacking within the Palestinian community – and more’s the pity, since it would dramatically turn the tables on the Israeli prosecution of the war. (Just in the last week, with the Palestinians surrounding a house in Gaza to prevent it from being bombed by the Israelis, it is possible to imagine change: these “human shields” forced the Israelis not to attack, which in turn means one less demand for violent vengeance from the Palestinian armed groups (terrorists or not) in response to the destruction of another house. Violence only begets violence.)

In fact, the idea of teaching peace is spread across many people and organizations working to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for example, Seeds of Peace, where Sami Al Jundi (also featured in the film) worked, relies on the idea of (teenage) reconciliation to forge a new generation of Middle Easterners who will talk, not fight. But based on my conversations with a number of the organization’s leaders, Seeds of Peace seems to resist the idea of explicitly teaching the fundamentals of pacifism or non-violence, which might better prepare those same kids for a future that is not at all as easily managed as the one-on-one reconciliation that can happen at a summer camp in Maine.

Encounter Point is fascinating, and for anyone who follows the details of this tragic conflict it is a must-see documentary. I suppose there is something to be said for the film attempting a kind of neutrality, for not pushing too hard at what resistance or reconciliation must mean in broader terms. Still, for a documentary that is very clearly driven by people and an organization seeking a non-violent resolution to this terrible, long-term war, it seems an odd omission in the end, not to take the opportunity to define more clearly what must come next. From the film’s first scene to its last, each of the participants serve as articulate spokespeople for dialogue, engagement, and some vague, undefined notion of peace (since the movie does not really dive into the details of what “solutions” to the conflict might look like). But realistically, all the interpersonal talk, the cross-border conversations, the efforts to understand, accept, and move on – all of this must be bolstered by a philosophy that ensures such talk is not easily ignored at the sight of the next tragedy. Finding this philosophy, and teaching it, should not be such a challenge since it sits so solidly at the heart of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the three main religions involved in this conflict. Why, then, does it always seem so difficult?


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home